Sunday 7 June 2020

Miniature World Building

When we talk about world-building in fiction, it sounds like something huge. We think Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones with their great historical backstories, myriad characters and entire languages. Or we think of the intricacies of science fiction – creating believable alternate realities or different scientific laws. Then there are books like Watership Down, where Richard Adams spins a mythology and history around real rabbit behaviour. Where books that take the reader into other worlds work, they’re deep and involving, they never for a moment give you cause to stop and question their plausibility.

But world-building works on a small scale too.

One of my favourite childhood books was Five Dolls in a House by Helen Clare. I can’t tell you where it came from or who gave it to me. It seems like a book I always had.

My well-read copy of Five Dolls in a House by Helen Clare, illustrated by Cecil Leslie

You can tell right from the start that some serious world building is going on here. Many – perhaps most – books that take their world-building seriously will provide readers with a map. There’s no map in Five Dolls in a House. Instead, there’s a section of the house. Oh yes! It’s like a signpost to say, ‘Here’s the world you’re in right now. Focus on this.’ And how many times I flicked back through the pages to work out who was where at various points of the story, how often I simply examined the picture and wished I owned this house myself.

Section of dolls' house from Five Dolls in a House by Helen Clare, illustrated by Cecil Leslie

The premise of the story is that Elizabeth wonders what the dolls in her dolls’ house do when she’s finished playing with them and closed the front of the house. She peeks in the window but of course the dolls are just lying where she left them. Then all at once Elizabeth finds herself walking up to the front door of the house. This strange magic isn’t referred to at all; Elizabeth just accepts it without question and I, as a reader, went along with her. When Elizabeth meets the dolls she tries to explain who she is, and the dolls take her explanation that she owns the house and the fact that she already knows all their names to mean that she is their landlady.

Every detail of the dolls’ world is considered. They moan about how dreadful it is to live in a house where the whole of the front comes off sometimes. They have to pretend to have dinner because all the food in the house is made of plaster (Elizabeth remedies this with a chocolate biscuit and jellies). Some pet mice take up residence in the house and the dolls use them as horses to pull a little carriage (with disastrous results!).

It’s a joy! The characters are gorgeous – Vanessa, the eldest who is a terrible snob, Jane, the beauty, Amanda, clever and naughty, Jacqueline, the French paying guest, Lupin, who always goes about in her vest much to Vanessa’s disapproval, and the monkey who lives on the roof and is always making cheeky comments and causing mischief.

So much is packed into this short book. As with many chapter books for younger readers, each chapter is a complete story but the whole has a narrative that reaches a satisfying conclusion. Long after I was grown up, I did discover that there were sequels to the story, but I can’t bear to read them. For me Five Dolls in a House is a completely perfect miniature world and I don’t want to know any more.

This post is part of a collection of seven about children's books that I love. You can see the original post here, with links to all the books I've written about.

1 comment:

  1. i HAVE to reread this now. I'd forgotten about the monkey but i think one reason i loved it is because I ALSO had a toy monkey


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